Larry Jagan, Foreign Correspondent
Protests against elections in Myanmar included a brief silent demonstration last year for the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Saeed Khan / AFP
BANGKOK // The rumour mill in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is working overtime.
Increasingly October 10 is being seen as the date of the election because of the junta’s fixation on numerology: the day will be 10/10/10 in the Gregorian calendar.
In the past, the country’s military made many important decisions on the basis of what astrologers had decreed as auspicious or significant dates, including the 1990 election date and the mass move to the new capital. The former ruler, Gen Ne Win, only allowed local kyat currency notes to be printed that were denominations of nine – regarded as an exceptionally lucky number in Myanmar.
“Everyone in Burma is quietly talking about the elections even though the date is yet to be announced,” said Janelle Saffin, an Australian member of parliament associated with the Burma Lawyers Council, after a recent private visit to the country.
“Several psychologists told me that there has been a significant increase in anxiety among many average Burmese, especially in Rangoon [Yangon], because of the uncertainty surrounding the elections.”
China, Myanmar’s closest ally, believes the elections will be sometime in the last three months of this year, according to Chinese diplomats. But while the election seems certain now to be held in October or November – after this year’s rainy season – the current favourite date may just be a hoax, warned Justin Wintle, a Myanmar specialist and author a biography of the political opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Perfect Hostage.
Although the election date has not been set, campaigning, at least by supporters of the junta, is in full swing. “State-controlled media – newspapers and television – are full of reports and photographs of government ministers inaugurating community and development projects, shaking hands with local leaders and handing out financial assistance,” a Yangon-based diplomat said.
Myanmar’s top senior general, Than Shwe, told the country last year in his annual speech to mark Armed Forces Day that “democracy today is at a fledgling stage and still requires patient care and attention.” Since then he has said little on the subject, except in January, when he warned potential political parties and politicians not to be foolish and to follow the rules.
“Plans are under way to hold elections in a systematic way this year. In that regard, the entire people have to make correct choices,” he cautioned.
No electoral commission has been established and, even more importantly, the electoral and political parties laws that will control the process have not been unveiled.
In the last elections, held in May 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won convincingly, but the military rulers never allowed it to form a civilian government. This time the generals are not planning to make the same mistake and are tightly controlling everything to ensure they do not lose.
In the meantime they are deliberately keeping almost everyone in the dark.
“The election laws will be published at the last minute,” said Win Min, a Myanmarese academic at Chiang Mai University in Thailand. “They want to keep any potential opposition wrong footed and not allow them time to organise.”
The last time elections were held the electoral law was made public 20 months before the elections.
“The electoral laws are now 97 per cent complete,” Myanmar’s foreign minister, Nyan Win, recently told his Indonesian counterpart, Marty Natalegawam, at a meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations in Hanoi. “It will take another two or three months to make it 100 per cent. So, I think the elections would be most probably in the second half of the year.”
In the meantime, government ministers and civil servants have started political campaigning.
“No decision is being taken that does not relate to the election preparation,” a senior UN official in Yangon said speaking on condition of anonymity. “We have been told by government ministers that some crucial new projects can only start after the election,” another UN aid official said.
Only 10 political parties will be allowed to run, Myanmar’s prime minister, Thein Sein, has said. But he has not said anything publicly about Ms Suu Kyi or the NLD.
The military junta plans to form a political party that will be under the control of Union Solidarity and Development Association, set up by Than Shwe nearly 15 years ago to generate popular support for the government, military sources said.
The existing National Unity Party was the main pro-military party set up to fight the last elections, but only won 10 seats.
These two parties will be expected to win the popular vote and make sure the military remains in power, even if there is a nominal shift to civilian rule. Twenty-five per cent of the seats have already been reserved for serving soldiers in the new constitution, approved by a referendum in May 2008 that was roundly criticised by the opposition and the international community as a sham.
“In 2010, it will only be an election of the dictators – as they take off their uniforms and pretend to be civilians,” said Soe Aung, a leading Myanmarese pro-democracy activist based in Thailand.
“There’s no chance that any civilian government after the elections will have real power,” the former British ambassador to Yangon, Martin Moreland, said. “Than Shwe is unlikely to retire; more likely he will copy his predecessor, Ne Win, and remain the ultimate authority behind the scenes.
“But there is just a chance that the regime may miscalculate somehow.”